For the second time in two weeks, Northwest football limped through a shaky first half on both sides of the ball Sept. 14.
For the second time in two contests, the Bearcats found themselves trailing in a football game and engineered a comeback victory while playing lockdown defense for most of the second half.
And for the second time in two years, Northwest quarterback Braden Wright shined and led the Bearcats to a 38-17 win over Washburn in Week 2.
For Northwest, the win was defined by a tale of two halves. The Bearcats allowed Washburn to put together two drives of more than 70-yards in the game’s opening half, twice trailing the Ichabods by 7 points. Washburn's opening drive, a five-play, 75-yard series capped off by an 11-yard touchdown from junior quarterback Mitch Schurig to sophomore wideout Collin Wilson, put the Bearcats down with 13:42 left to play in the first.
Northwest’s offense responded a few minutes later with a 74-yard drive of its own, punctuated by sophomore Braden Wright’s 27-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Alec Tatum.
The remainder of the first half followed a similar script. Northwest’s defense bent to the Ichabods’ will for much of the game’s first two quarters but, for the most part, refused to break. Washburn racked up 238 yards of offense and converted on 80% of its third-down tries, yet the Bearcats held the Ichabods to 14 first-half points. Northwest’s offense matched Washburn’s output, though failed to establish a rhythm in its perpetual game of catchup.
“I didn’t like how we started the football game,” coach Rich Wright said. “We’re still making too many mistakes on defense. … We’ve just — we’ve got to get better with our backups right now. It is what it is and we’re not going to make excuses about it.”
For Northwest, the first half was defined by missed tackles and failed stops. Rich Wright said allowing Washburn to convert on 8-of-10 third-down tries in the first half allowed the Ichabods to extend their own drives and led to poor field position for Northwest’s offense.
As Northwest entered halftime, the scoreboard read 14-14. The defense had allowed more than 200 yards but forced and recovered a fumble. Braden Wright had accumulated 156 yards of total offense himself but had thrown an interception. Northwest’s run game had netted just 58 yards. The offense hadn’t punted.
As they trotted off the field and towards the locker room, the Bearcats were a walking inconsistency, toeing the line of both an offensive breakthrough and a defensive break down. They needed something to give.
Nothing seemed to change in the immediate moments after halftime. Northwest received the ball to start the quarter and began to drive, but the offense stalled after seven plays and 34 yards.
Washburn responded with a 76-yard drive, one that ended four yards away from Northwest’s endzone. The Ichabods settled for a chip-shot field goal off the foot of freshman kicker Luke Kameron. In the moment, the drive seemed to follow the same script the first half had: Northwest’s defense bent, but refused to break in the red zone.
But after Washburn took a 17-14 lead with 6:43 left to play in the third quarter, the script changed. Northwest’s offense exploded. The defense stabilized and excelled. The Ichabods wouldn’t score again.
“It’s really just a mentality thing,” senior running back Justin Rankin said. “We didn't really change any schemes up, I mean, we ran the same plays. But we just came out like, ‘We’ve got to go. This is the second half, there’s a-whole-nother half of football … let’s go.’”
After Washburn took its three-point lead, Northwest’s offense caught fire. The Bearcats scored on each of their next four drives. Rankin took off for a 41-yard touchdown in the third. Senior kicker Parker Sampson drilled a 35-yard field goal after Washburn punter Lane Spiker had trouble with a bad snap.
Rankin found the endzone again on a 2-yard score early in the fourth quarter. Braden Wright rushed for a 5-yard touchdown minutes later, spiking the ball and celebrating as Northwest took a 38-17 lead it would not surrender.
“I just think it’s their mentality this year,” Rich Wright said. “We’re two weeks into the season and we’ve kind of lost leads in different games and figured out a way to come back. I just think it’s indicative of the resiliency of this group. I think it’s indicative of the changes that we’ve made on offense.”
Rankin, who was held to 19 yards in the first half, finished the game with 93 yards and two scores. Braden Wright piled on 141 passing yards in the game’s second half to lift his output to 278 yards, a career-high for the sophomore. He completed passes to 10 different receivers in the win. Rich Wright said his quarterback’s second-half consistency and rhythm were impressive.
“I thought he showed up today,” Rich Wright said of his quarterback. “20-of-29 for 278 yards: that’s not a bad day at the office.”
“Sheesh,” Rankin added when he heard his quarterback’s stat line.
The defense turned in a similarly-impressive stat sheet in the game’s final two quarters. The unit allowed three second-half points. Northwest held Washburn’s offense to 112 total yards in the second half. The defense’s second-half performance was highlighted by an interception, courtesy of an all-out effort by junior cornerback J’Ravien Anderson, a play Rich Wright called “a big pick, man.” Anderson credited his interception to film-watching and athleticism as he read Washburn’s play and Schurig’s eyes before diving to make the play.
“I knew I had help over the top because I trust my safeties,” Anderson said. “So I just undercut. And I (was) just being an athlete. Got the pick.”
Anderson laid on the ground for close to a full minute after grabbing the pick. He said he cramped mid-air. Rich Wright joked that he rolled his eyes when he jogged across the field to where Anderson was already being helped up by the time he arrived and found out it was just a cramp.
The moment itself embodied Northwest’s 21-point win, and to an extent, Northwest’s season so far. It was stirring and dramatic. It was an unnerving moment followed by relief.
Rich Wright knows his team wasn’t at its best in the Week 2 victory over Washburn. He had a sideline view of Northwest’s first-half inconsistencies. But his team won the game. Right now, that’s all he really cares about.
“You don’t get style points for winning,” Rich Wright said. “I’m tired of worrying about what everybody else thinks. I’m just going to do everything I can to have this football team learn and grow and develop, and if we can learn lessons along the way and win football games, then I’m OK with that. Were we perfect? No way. We weren’t even close to it.”
Earlier in the week, Rich Wright said the uptick in his team’s performance between Week 1 and Week 2 would help determine how far Northwest might go this season. But in the aftermath of Northwest’s Week 2 victory, he bucked that narrative.
The particulars of the win do not matter because it was one, Rich Wright said. He said no one remembers what happened in Week 2 in 2016 or in Week 3 of 2015, when Northwest went on to win national championships. But they remember the outcome.
“I’m not prognosticating anything that we’re going to do as a football team,” Rich Wright said. “We’re not where we need to be yet. We’re not a championship-caliber football team yet. But it is also Week 2, and so let’s see where we can go.”